What holds society together when society is pulling itself apart? According to Ulster University Professor Paul Arthur, the answer is civil society. Over a candlelit dinner, Professor Arthur shared his immeasurable wisdom and insights on the origins and opportunities of conflict in divided societies. With experience witnessing the transformation of Northern Ireland as well as his engagement in both the Middle East and South Africa, Professor Arthur was poised to share invaluable observations with our South African and Israeli/Palestinian delegations.
Comparing his home country to those of the participants, Arthur suggested that the situation in Northern Ireland is simple in relation to the Arab-Israeli conflict and the challenges facing South Africa. He reflected on the ways in which the lessons of South Africa and Israel helped Northern Ireland. Further, he pointed to the significant contextual factors that contributed to the delicate power-sharing framework that emerged from the Good Friday Agreement, namely the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of apartheid, and the engagement of the Clinton Administration through the appointment of Senator George Mitchell as a peace envoy.
Albeit momentarily, these (and probably many other) historical, economic, and political factors came together in a particularly significant way because they influenced the nation positively. Conditions were ripe for peace. The stakeholders in the region – political leaders, foreign governments, community activists, the citizenry – stood ready and they grasped the moment, and then they nurtured that moment until they transformed it into an era.
Are moments manufactured? It is unlikely. Rather, civil society cultivates the emergence of moments. What happens at the grassroots makes an impact. Without the engine of civil society action, peace building despairs. With peace in despair, the pattern of violence continues until an armageddon is reached. To avoid despair and the violent confrontations that typically accompany it, Arthur suggested that participants embrace their imaginations. If societies re-imagine relations even where there is slaughter all around, Arthur explained, it is possible to maintain the significant energy and effort directed toward peacebuilding. The listeners’ attention piqued. They grasped the evening’s principle moment, understanding that imagination is vital to finding a way out of conflict.
Arthur encouraged the participants to redirect attention away from the big picture. Focus on the grassroots, he emphasized. Search for what is nestling in the undergrowth of society. Further a commitment to nonviolence. Get serious about peace. Stay in the process so as to avoid impotency. Remain connected to yourself and to others.
What is nestling in the undergrowth? The participants are staunchly nestled in the undergrowth of their deeply divided societies, growing the seeds of peace necessary to cultivate a serious commitment to peace and nonviolence among a broad spectrum of society. As teachers in integrated schools, mediators, practitioners of conflict resolution, social workers, and empowerment activists, they are furthering the growth of the most vital segments of their local communities.
Indeed, the most meaningful aspect of the ongoing program in Northern Ireland is that the participants are themselves inspired and inspiring. And so the story continues.